London-based Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa has just celebrated 30 years since her professional debut with a recital in her hometown Kawasaki. She is constantly in demand in Japan and U.K. as soloist and increasingly as teacher. She is also sought after as an adjudicator and has been appointed the Chairperson of the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 2018. Noriko shared some of her personal experiences and thoughts as a competition judge.

Noriko Ogawa © Martin Lijinsky
Noriko Ogawa
© Martin Lijinsky

Nahoko Gotoh: As a competition prizewinner yourself (Third prize at Leeds International Piano Competition, 1987), how has the prize helped and shaped your career? Did it worry you at the time that you didn’t win first prize?

Noriko Ogawa: I would not be here today without the Leeds. I am ever so grateful to the competition which gave each prizewinner an impressive list of engagements both large and small, as well as some BBC broadcasts. I was absolutely delighted to be given the third prize. To be honest, my repertoire was quite small then and I would not have been able to cope with huge concerts on a weekly basis. The Leeds placed me in the most perfect place. It changed my life overnight. I was nobody before, and came out as a professional pianist after the competition!

For the last decade or so, you have been on the jury of many competitions including the BBC Young Musician and Honens. When you are judging, do you look for the finished article or a talent in the making, or does that depend on the competition?

It is not always easy for me to say whether a pianist is ready to go out there at the first listening. It is a fact that competitions are getting tougher every day and as a result, we tend to go for the ‘finished product’ rather than a ‘big talent but work in progress’.

In your experience, do you think the judging process in competitions has changed over the years?

I think things have changed over the years. Currently, the first rule of every international competition is ‘no discussion between jury members’, but when I was a competitor in the 1980s, it was slightly more relaxed – or at least, that was my impression. In the 21st century, it is strictly forbidden to ask a fellow jury ‘what did you think of this pianist?’ or even to pass light-hearted comments as it could start a serious mind game. Of course we can chat about anything and everything but about the competition. Listening to piano performances of a high standard 8 hours a day for weeks can be a lonely and tough job, but we have to believe in ourselves, our ears, our musicianship and our senses.

You are now the new Chairperson of the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition to be held in 2018. This competition has long been associated with the late Hiroko Nakamura, the doyenne of the Japanese piano world. What is her legacy and how do you want to develop it?

My immediate predecessor at the Hamamatsu was Akiko Ebi, who took over from Hiroko Nakamura in 2012. Hiroko’s work for the competition was massive. She had a huge network of friends in several countries and she made the competition famous in the world. Still, we must not forget Akiko’s fabulous work too; she introduced the chamber music round and invited Martha Argerich on the jury. Akiko’s artistry, true musicianship, together with her sympathetic personality enhanced the competition’s image enormously.

Do you think the choice of repertoire in recent major competitions tend to emphasise the technical aspects too much?

I often talk about Olympian gymnasts who now perform E or F rated skills so easily. The same thing is happening at the piano and it is normal for young pianists to play huge amount of notes at the speed of light! Inevitably, competitions have to have technically demanding works on the repertoire list. At Hamamatsu, however, we give opportunities for ‘free choice’. It is an important aspect for pianists to learn how to build programmes because we have an endless amount of pieces in piano literature. Programme building tends to have a trend, but I am totally open-minded about it as long as it makes sense when it is performed.

Do you think it’s a good idea for piano competitions to have chamber music rounds to judge their musicianship?

It is vital to have a chamber music round in a piano competition. Realistically speaking, it is chamber music which gives us pianists so much work out there. A pianist’s career doesn’t mean just recitals and big concerto dates. Musically speaking, chamber music reveals so much about every pianist.

As a jury and teacher, do you have advice on how young pianists should choose a competition that would suit them? Do you think some young pianists enter too many competitions?

There are more than 600 piano competitions these days, so one has to find suitable competitions. With specialized competitions like the Chopin and Tchaikovsky, you need to be sure about the required repertoire. On the other hand, there are others with more freedom where you can paint your own pictures. It is not difficult to choose when you know what you would like to ‘say’ in your music making.

How many competitions can you enter in your lifetime from 600+ in the world?  During my student days, we were emotional competitors and we took our results very personally, but the young pianists of today are more philosophical and mature. I admire their energy and determination to do ‘competition crawling’.

You have an incredibly wide repertoire, and you have recorded some unusual repertoire for the BIS label. How did you choose and develop your repertoire?

My repertoire is actually not that big and there are many hollow bits here and there. When I first started out, my huge dynamic range gave me chances to play the big Russian concerti. But I was attracted to French repertoire as well. After recording Takemitsu, Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky, Robert von Bahr, the managing director of BIS asked me what I wanted to record next and I said “Debussy” without any hesitation. This led to my Debussy recordings.

Currently, I am in the process of recording Satie’s piano music on a French 1890 Erard piano. I was so lucky to find this breathtakingly beautiful instrument in Tokyo. I first played this instrument a few years ago for my Debussy recital and I fell love with it immediately. It is a very expressive and surprisingly strong piano and I absolutely love playing it. Two Satie albums have already been released and I will continue recording Satie next year. My career wouldn’t have been the same without BIS. They have been so kind to me.

You have commissioned new works from many Japanese composers. Has this been an important part of your identity as a Japanese pianist on the world stage?

Every composer was ‘contemporary’ when they were alive, so why not meet living composers and perform their works? Especially after I came to the UK, I met many people who were interested in culture from the Far East and my identity as a Japanese became a positive one. Toru Takemitsu is, of course, the best-known composer from Japan, but I also perform works by Akira Miyoshi, Yoshihiro Kanno, Dai Fujikura, Akiko Yamane and others. We have included Japanese composers’ works in the repertoire list at the Hamamatsu so I hope to hear some in the competition next November.


Find out more about the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition here.